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Ginsburg, leader of Supreme Court’s liberal wing, dies

Clinton appointee had metastatic pancreatic cancer

Ginsburg, leader of Supreme Court’s liberal wing, dies

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2018 (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 87, died Friday of metastatic pancreatic cancer after 27 years on the U.S. Supreme Court and several bouts with cancer during her life. 

Only the second woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, she shaped her legacy as a lawyer, then judge, as an advocate of women’s rights—which in her mind included no restrictions on government-funded abortion. She described herself as a “flaming feminist.”

For the last decade, Ginsburg led the court’s liberal wing, following Justice John Paul Stevens’ 2010 retirement. During that time she became much more openly liberal than previously in her career, criticizing President Donald Trump when he was a candidate in 2016. (She later apologized saying, “Judges should avoid commenting on a candidate for public office.”) She also indicated her support for gay marriage before hearing the Obergefell v. Hodges case in 2015.

Her death weeks before Election Day and during a Republican administration initiates a frenzied process for her replacement. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday a Trump nominee will get a full Senate vote. Republicans control the Senate and the White House, but a Republican appointee taking Ginsburg’s spot will generate heated opposition. Liberal activists had urged her to retire during President Barack Obama’s administration, but she refused. Trump will face pressure to pick a woman. Only four have served on the Supreme Court.

With a Ginsburg replacement like 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a 6-3 conservative majority would tilt the court’s balance of power. The court might have the votes to overturn Roe v. Wade, for example, and even overrule Chief Justice John Roberts’ moderating efforts on a number of issues.

Though soft-spoken and barely over 5 feet tall, she was one of the most popularly recognized names on the court, with the simple moniker “RBG.” Former Justice Anthony Kennedy, with more landmark decisions to his name, doesn’t have a major motion picture about him as Ginsburg does—or sequin pillowcases for sale on Amazon emblazoned with his face. Ginsburg embraced her stardom, publicly expressing her delight in internet memes about her. 

She was one of three Jews on the current court, though she was not religiously active. She had a 56-year marriage to Martin Ginsburg, whom she called her “biggest booster” and who died in 2010. They had two children. 

Until 2019, Ginsburg had never missed a day of oral arguments, even in days after cancer surgeries and her husband’s death. But after she fell and broke ribs in November 2018, doctors found early-stage lung cancer and performed surgery to remove it the next month. Doctors gave her a positive prognosis at the time, but she missed arguments for the first time in her tenure. In response to health scares, she followed a strict exercise regimen for years. Her longtime trainer released a book called The RBG Workout.

Ginsburg leaned hard left later in her career, but earlier she found more consensus with justices like close friend Antonin Scalia. Still, her “living Constitution” judicial philosophy was always diametrically opposed to Scalia’s “textual” approach to the Constitution. She said in her confirmation hearings that a judge should take into account “the climate of the era.” 

“What’s not to like?” Scalia once said about her. “Except her views on the law.” 

Some feminists had initially opposed her nomination to the high court because she had previously criticized some of the reasoning in Roe v. Wade. But she endorsed the idea of a right to abortion during her confirmation hearing and has opposed any restrictions on abortion since (including opposing a congressional ban on partial-birth abortion). 

Aside from her authorship of a major gender equality case (United States v. Virginia, an opinion allowing women into the Virginia Military Institute), much of her judicial legacy came simply from her votes. Some major 5-4 decisions: She voted to legalize gay marriage and uphold Obamacare. On religious freedom, she voted on the side of a Christian school in the landmark Hosanna-Tabor case but voted against religious freedom claimants in the Hobby Lobby and Masterpiece Cake Shop cases. 

Her dissents attracted much attention. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, she said the court was causing “havoc” by allowing Hobby Lobby to claim religious freedom protections. In Shelby County v. Holder, she decried the court’s edits to the Voting Rights Act as “hubris.” Other dissents to attract attention were Bush v. Gore, Stenberg v. Carhart (the partial-birth abortion case), and especially Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., a 2007 case about gender pay discrimination that led to Congress passing the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. 

Judicial legacy aside, Ginsburg’s life story is remarkable. She was the daughter of a first-generation Jewish immigrant (her father) and became one of the most powerful officials in the United States. As a child during World War II, Ginsburg recalled a car ride through Pennsylvania during which her family passed a sign outside a resort that read, “No dogs or Jews allowed.” 

She similarly suffered a number of indignities as one of the very few women at Harvard Law School when she started in 1959, like being banned from visiting particular men-only libraries. She recalled later declining requests to speak at prominent male-only clubs.

While she attended Harvard, her husband was diagnosed with testicular cancer. She attended his classes for him while maintaining her top ranking in her own class as well as caring for their young daughter. Martin recovered, but as a woman and a Jew, she had trouble finding a job after graduation from law school even though she ranked first in her class. 

She managed to find opportunities and eventually became the first female tenured professor at Columbia Law School in 1972. She worked for the American Civil Liberties Union as well, arguing six gender discrimination cases successfully at the Supreme Court. In one, she argued for men’s rights, since “widowers” were left out of certain Social Security benefits that widows received. 

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, a court that often is a pipeline to the Supreme Court. The promotion to the highest court came in 1993 from President Bill Clinton. 

Ginsburg’s two children, Jane and James, and several grandchildren survive her.

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the The New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @emlybelz.


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  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Sat, 09/19/2020 06:37 am

    She was a remarkable woman with remarkable achievements. To get to the Supreme Court!!! That is amazing. Her politics and take on the Constitution are another story. But I'm afraid that this will color our discussions of her death. Her story and her as a person and mother, wife and woman will be lost in the politics of her replacement. Sad to ponder.


  • Preptalks
    Posted: Sat, 09/19/2020 11:44 am

    Kudos Emily on a fine tribute to an exceptional woman. She and the late justice Scalia demonstrated that people with diametrically opposing views can be the closest of friends, and their commitment to civility & mutual respect is sorely needed today. May the Lord comfort RBG's loved ones. 

  • DEBI
    Posted: Sat, 09/19/2020 03:42 pm

    All I will remember about RBG is that many many babies are dead.  She had the power to save them and she didn't ! 

  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Sat, 09/19/2020 06:10 pm

    Ruth Bader Ginsburg performed no abortions. Moms and dads had those abortions. Let the buck of responsibility fall where it ought to fall--on the parents who get themselves pregnant and those same parents who choose to abort.

    Posted: Sat, 09/19/2020 08:53 pm

    Surprisingly, you will get little sympathy here, or anywhere else for that matter.  I'm shocked at the chorus of Christian voices joining in to praise a woman who has so much innocent blood on her hands.  I stand with you, Debi.

    Posted: Sun, 09/20/2020 11:48 am

    Let's see if this phrase works for a pro-life Christian:

    "Silence is violence!"

  • Mark
    Posted: Sun, 09/20/2020 02:44 pm

    I have many mixed feelings over the death of this Justice.  We are all appointed a time of death and so I greive the passing of a fellow human being mostly when it appears by all evidence that they did not have a saving relationship with Christ.  By all appearances Justice Ginsburg was not a Christ follower.  For that I grieve.  But, I also grieve because she stewarded her life in a way that has caused the needless murder of millions of unborn babies.  She like many others had the capacity to know the truth and to do good.  However, she stewarded her life to empower these murders.  So that is where I grieve and I pray that we as a nation can find a way forward in unity to protect innocent life.  I lament and pray in such a spirit and hope others in the church join me.

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Sun, 09/20/2020 09:17 pm

    I have mixed feelings about RBG given that the death of anyone is sad, especially one who doesn't accept the gospel. You want to look back and praise the person but sadly their is little to praise given here philosophy on life. We can praise her for her ability to maintain friendships with people, such as Scalia, who were diametrically opposites on the political spectrum. She was also a real intellectual who did pave the way for women in the legal area, where she loved her family and sought balance in her life that was a model for future women. She fought through much adversity and triumphed. She was a remarkable women.

    At the same time she fought valiantly the devils battle to destroy America by promoting the liberal agenda with abortion, homosexuality, transgenderism, socialism, and progressivism in general. We should not hide the fact that she has blood on her hands with abortion. To say the person who opted to undergo the abortion is entirely at fault and the people who make the laws (legislators) and interpret the law (judges) have no responsibility is grossly in error. God will hold her accountable and she will be in hell alongside other mass murderers such as Hitler, Stalin and others. She supported crimes against the very weakest - the baby in the womb! She fought against the Christian cause and was very successful at it. She fought against our Christian liberties. God will hold her accountable. 

    Let us not sugarcoat the legacy of RBG for it was remarkable in many ways, but at the same time it was horrific too. 

  • Big Jim
    Posted: Sun, 09/20/2020 10:20 pm

    When one of these famous people (or anybody, really) dies, I am always struck by one question: is their name written in the Book of Life? For them, nothing else matters. Their legacy, their contribution to society, their good works. It all comes down to that one question.

    Posted: Mon, 09/21/2020 06:44 pm

    Well written summary.

  • Leeper
    Posted: Tue, 09/22/2020 07:12 am

    My condolences go to her family and friends. Saying that I disagree with her world view and her decisions on the supreme court.  Sad to say her soul appears not to be in the book of life.